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Burned, Page 3

P. C. Cast

  “What are you gonna do about them? You can’t just let them get away with this.”

  “I won’t. But they’re my responsibility, and I’m gonna take care of them myself.”

  Dallas grinned. “You’re gonna kick their butts, huh?”

  “Somethin’ like that,” Stevie Rae said, clueless about what she was going to do. Then she hastily changed the subject. “Hey, what time is it? I think I’m starving.”

  Dallas’s grin changed to laughter as he stood up. “Now that sounds like my girl!” He kissed her forehead and then turned to the mini-fridge that was tucked within the metallic shelving across the room. “Lenobia told me there’s baggies of blood in here. She said as fast as you’ve been healing and as deep as you’ve been sleeping, you’d probably wake up hungry.”

  While he went for the blood baggies, Stevie Rae sat up and gingerly peeked down the back of her generic hospital gown, wincing a little at how stiff the movement made her feel. She expected the worst. Seriously, her back had been like nasty burned hamburger when Lenobia and Erik had pulled her from the hole she’d made in the earth. Pulled her from Rephaim.

  Don’t think about him now. Just focus on—

  “Ohmygoodness,” Stevie Rae whispered in awe as she stared at what she could see of her back. It wasn’t hamburgered anymore. It was smooth. Bright pink, as if she’d gotten sunburned, but smooth and new-looking, like baby skin.

  “That’s amazing.” Dallas’s voice was hushed. “A real miracle.”

  Stevie Rae looked up at him. Their eyes met and held.

  “You scared me good, girl,” he said. “Don’t do that again, ’kay?”

  “I’ll try my best not to,” she said softly.

  Dallas leaned forward and carefully, with just the tips of his fingers, touched the fresh pink skin at the back of her shoulder. “Does it still hurt?”

  “Not really. I’m just kinda stiff.”

  “Amazing,” he repeated. “I mean, I know Lenobia said you’d been healing while you were sleepin’, but you were hurt real bad, and I just didn’t expect anything like—”

  “How long have I been asleep?” She cut him off, trying to imagine the consequences of Dallas’s telling her she’d been out for days and days. What would Rephaim think if she didn’t show up? Worse—what would he do?

  “It’s just been one day.”

  Relief flooded her. “One day? Really?”

  “Yeah, well, dusk was a couple hours ago, so you’ve technically been sleepin’ longer than one day. They brought you back here yesterday after sunrise. It was pretty dramatic. Erik drove the Hummer right across the grounds, knocked down a fence, and floored it straight into Lenobia’s barn. Then we all scrambled like crazy to carry you through the school up here to the infirmary.”

  “Yeah, I talked to Z in the Hummer on the way back here, and I was feelin’ almost okay, but then it was like someone turned out the lights on me. I think I passed out.”

  “I know ya did.”

  “Well, that’s a dang shame.” Stevie Rae let herself smile. “I woulda liked seeing all that drama.”

  “Yeah”—he grinned back at her—“that’s exactly what I thought once I got over thinkin’ you were gonna die.”

  “I’m not gonna die,” she said firmly.

  “Well, I’m glad to hear it.” Dallas bent, cupped her chin in his hand, and kissed her tenderly on the lips.

  With a strange, automatic reaction, Stevie Rae jerked away from him.

  “Uh, how about that blood baggie?” she said quickly.

  “Oh, yeah.” Dallas shrugged off her rejection, but his cheeks were unnaturally pink when he handed her the bag. “Sorry, I wasn’t thinkin’. I know you’re hurt, and ya don’t feel like, er, well, you know . . .” His voice trailed off, and he looked super uncomfortable.

  Stevie Rae knew she should say something. After all, she and Dallas did have a thing together. He was sweet and smart, and he proved he understood her by standing there, looking all sorry, and kinda lowering his head in an adorable way that made him look like a little boy. And he was cute—tall and lean, with just the right amount of muscles and thick hair the color of sand. She actually liked kissing him. Or she used to.

  Didn’t she still?

  An unfamiliar sense of unease kept her from finding the words that would make him feel better, so instead of speaking, Stevie Rae took the baggie from him, tore open the corner, and upended it, letting the blood drain down the back of her throat and expand like a mega shot of Red Bull from her stomach to energize the rest of her body.

  She didn’t want to, but somewhere deep inside her, Stevie Rae weighed the difference between how this normal, mortal, ordinary blood made her feel—and how Rephaim’s blood had been like a lightning strike of energy and heat.

  Her hand shook only a little when she wiped her mouth and finally looked up at Dallas.

  “That better?” he asked, looking unfazed by their strange exchange and like his familiar, sweet self again.

  “Could I have one more?”

  He smiled and held another baggie out to her. “Already ahead of you, girl.”

  “Thanks, Dallas.” She paused before slurping down the second one. “I don’t feel totally one hundred percent right now. Ya know?”

  Dallas nodded. “I know.”

  “We okay?”

  “Yep,” he said. “If you’re okay—we’re okay.”

  “Well, this’ll help.” Stevie Rae was upending the baggie when Lenobia came in the room.

  “Hey, Lenobia—check out Sleeping Beauty finally waking up,” Dallas said.

  Stevie Rae guzzled the last bloody drop and turned to the door, but the hello smile she’d already put on her face froze at her first glimpse of Lenobia.

  The Mistress of Horses had been crying. A lot.

  “Ohmygoodness, what is it?” Stevie Rae was so shaken by seeing the usually strong professor in tears that her first reaction was to pat the bed next to her, inviting Lenobia to sit with her, just like her mama used to do when she’d hurt herself and come crying to be fixed.

  Lenobia took several wooden steps into the room. She didn’t sit on Stevie Rae’s bed. She stood at the foot of it and drew a deep breath as if readying herself to do something really terrible.

  “Do you want me to go?” Dallas asked hesitantly.

  “No. Stay. She might need you.” Lenobia’s voice was rough and thick with tears. She met Stevie Rae’s eyes. “It’s Zoey. Something’s happened.”

  A jolt of fear zapped Stevie Rae in the gut, and the words burst from her before she could stop them. “She’s fine! I talked to her, remember? When we were leavin’ the depot, before all that daylight and pain and stuff caught up to me, and I passed out. That was just yesterday.”

  “Erce, my friend who serves as assistant to the High Council, has been trying to contact me for hours. I’d foolishly left my phone in the Hummer, so I didn’t speak to her until just now. Kalona killed Heath.”

  “Shit!” Dallas gasped.

  Stevie Rae ignored him and stared at Lenobia. Rephaim’s dad had killed Heath! The sick fear in her gut was getting worse and worse by the second. “Zoey’s not dead. I’d know it if she was dead.”

  “Zoey’s not dead, but she saw Kalona kill Heath. She tried to stop him and couldn’t. It shattered her, Stevie Rae.” Tears had started to leak down Lenobia’s porcelain cheeks.

  “Shattered her? What does that mean?”

  “It means her body still breathes, but her soul is gone. When a High Priestess’s soul is shattered, it is only a matter of time before her body fades from this world, too.”

  “Fades? I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about. Are you tryin’ to tell me she’s going to disappear?”

  “No,” Lenobia said raggedly. “She’s going to die.”

  Stevie Rae’s head started to shake back and forth, back and forth. “No. No. No! We just gotta get her here. She’ll be fine then.”

  “Even if her body returns here, Zoey
isn’t coming back, Stevie Rae. You have to prepare yourself for that.”

  “I won’t!” Stevie Rae yelled. “I can’t! Dallas, get me my jeans and stuff. I gotta get outta here. I gotta figure out a way to help Z. She didn’t give up on me, and I’m not givin’ up on her.”

  “This isn’t about you.” Dragon Lankford spoke from the open doorway to the infirmary room. His strong face was drawn and haggard with the newness of the loss of his mate, but his voice was calm and sure. “It’s about the fact that Zoey faced a grief she could not bear. And I do understand something about grief. When it shatters a soul, the path to return to the body is broken, and without the infilling of spirit, our bodies die.”

  “No, please. This can’t be right. This can’t be happening,” Stevie Rae told him.

  “You are the first red vampyre High Priestess. You have to find the strength to accept this loss. Your people will need you,” Dragon said.

  “We don’t know where Kalona has fled, nor do we know Neferet’s role in all of this,” Lenobia said.

  “What we do know is that Zoey’s death would be an excellent time for them to strike against us,” Dragon added.

  Zoey’s death . . . The words echoed through Stevie Rae’s mind, leaving behind shock and fear and despair.

  “Your powers are vast. The swiftness of your recovery proves that,” Lenobia said. “And we will need every power we can harness to meet the darkness I feel certain is going to descend upon us.”

  “Control your grief,” Dragon said. “And take up Zoey’s mantle.”

  “No one can be Zoey!” Stevie Rae cried.

  “We’re not asking you to be her. We’re only asking you to help the rest of us fill the void she leaves,” Lenobia said.

  “I have—I have to think,” Stevie Rae said. “Would y’all leave me alone for a while? I want to get dressed and think.”

  “Of course,” Lenobia said. “We will be in the Council Chamber. Meet us there when you are ready.” She and Dragon left the room silently, grief-stricken but resolute.

  “Hey, are you okay?” Dallas moved to her, reaching out to take her hand.

  She only let him touch her for a moment before she squeezed his hand and withdrew. “I need my clothes.”

  “I found ’em there in that closet.” Dallas jerked his head toward the cabinets on the opposite side of the room.

  “Good, thanks,” Stevie Rae said quickly. “You gotta leave so I can get dressed.”

  “You didn’t answer my question,” he said, watching her closely.

  “No. I’m not okay, and I’m not gonna be as long as they keep sayin’ Z’s gonna die.”

  “But, Stevie Rae, even I’ve heard about what happens when a soul leaves a body—the person dies,” he said, obviously trying to say the harsh words gently.

  “Not this time,” Stevie Rae said. “Now go on outta here so I can get dressed.

  Dallas sighed. “I’ll be waiting outside.”

  “Fine. I won’t take too long.”

  “Take your time, girl,” Dallas said softly. “I don’t mind waiting.”

  But as soon as the door shut, Stevie Rae didn’t jump up and throw on her clothes like she’d meant to. Instead her memory was too busy flipping through her Fledgling Handbook 101 and stopping at a super-sad story about an ancient soul-shattered High Priestess. Stevie Rae couldn’t remember what had caused the priestess’s soul to shatter—she didn’t remember much about the story, actually—except that the High Priestess had died. No matter what anyone had tried to do to save her—the High Priestess had died.

  “The High Priestess died,” Stevie Rae whispered. And Zoey wasn’t even a real, grown High Priestess. She was technically still a fledgling. How could she be expected to find her way back from something that had killed a grown High Priestess?

  The truth was, she couldn’t.

  It wasn’t fair! They’d all been through so much hard stuff, and now Zoey was just gonna die? Stevie Rae didn’t want to believe it. She wanted to fight and scream and find a way to fix her BFF, but how could she? Z was in Italy and she was in Tulsa. And, hell! Stevie Rae couldn’t figure out how to fix a bunch of pain-in-the-ass red fledglings. Who was she to think she could do anything about something as terrible as Z’s soul shattering from her body?

  She couldn’t even tell the truth about being Imprinted with the son of the creature who had caused this awful thing to happen.

  Sadness swept over Stevie Rae. She crumpled in on herself, hugged the pillow to her chest, and, twirling a blond curl around and around her finger like she used to do when she was little, began to weep. The sobs wracked her, and she buried her face in the pillow so Dallas wouldn’t hear her crying, losing herself to shock and fear and complete, overwhelming despair.

  Just as she was giving in to the worst of it, the air around her stirred. Almost as if someone had cracked the window in the small room.

  At first she ignored it, too lost in her tears to care about a stupid cold breeze. But it was insistent. It touched the fresh, pink skin of her exposed back in a cool caress that was surprisingly pleasant. For a moment she relaxed, allowing herself to absorb comfort from the touch.

  Touch? She’d told him to wait outside!

  Stevie Rae’s head shot up. Her lips were pulled back from her teeth in a snarl she meant to aim at Dallas.

  No one was in the room.

  She was alone. Absolutely alone.

  Stevie Rae dropped her face in her hands. Was shock making her go totally batshit crazy? She didn’t have time for crazy. She had to get up and get dressed. She had to put one foot in front of the other and go out there and deal with the truth about what had happened to Zoey, and her red fledglings, and Kalona, and, eventually, Rephaim.

  Rephaim . . .

  His name echoed in the air, another cold caress against her skin, wrapping around her. Not just touching her back but skimming down the length of her arms and swirling around her waist and over her legs. And everywhere the coolness touched, it was like a little bit of her grief had been washed away. This time when she looked up she was more controlled in her reaction. She wiped her eyes clear and stared down at her body.

  The mist that surrounded her was made of tiny sparkling drops that were the exact color she’d come to recognize in his eyes.

  “Rephaim.” Against her will, she whispered his name.

  He calls you . . .

  “What the hell is going on?” Stevie Rae muttered, anger stirring through despair.

  Go to him . . .

  “Go to him?” she said, feeling increasingly pissed off. “His dad caused this.”

  Go to him . . .

  Letting the tide of cool caress and red anger make her decision, Stevie Rae yanked on her clothes. She would go to Rephaim, but only because he might know something that she could use to help Zoey. He was the son of a dangerous and powerful immortal. Obviously, he had abilities she didn’t know about. The red stuff that was floating around her was definitely from him, and it must be made of some kind of spirit.

  “Fine,” she said aloud to the mist. “I’ll go to him.”

  The instant she spoke the words aloud, the red haze evaporated, leaving only a lingering coolness on her skin and a strange, otherworldly sense of calm.

  I’ll go to him, and if he can’t help me, then I think—Imprint or no Imprint—I’m going to have to kill him.

  Chapter 4


  “Seriously, Erce, I’m only going to say this one more time. I don’t care about your stupid rules. Zoey is in there.” Aphrodite paused and pointed one well-manicured fingernail at the closed stone door. “And that means I’m going in there.”

  “Aphrodite, you are a human—one who isn’t even the consort of a vampyre. You cannot simply burst into the High Council Chamber with all of your youthful, mortal hysteria, especially during a time of crisis such as this.” The vampyre’s cool look took in Aphrodite’s messed-up hair, tear-stained face, and reddened eyes. “The Council will invite
you to join them. Probably. Until then, you must wait.”

  “I am not hysterical.” Aphrodite spoke the words slowly, distinctly, and with forced calm, attempting to totally make up for the fact that the reason she’d been left outside the High Council Chamber when Stark, followed by Darius, Damien, the Twins, and even Jack, had carried Zoey’s lifeless body inside was entirely because she had been exactly what Erce had called her—a hysterical human. She hadn’t been able to keep up with the rest of them, especially since she’d been crying so hard the snot and tears had kept her from doing much breathing or seeing. By the time she’d pulled herself together, the door had been closed in her face, with Erce acting as fucking gatekeeper.

  But Erce was super wrong if she thought Aphrodite didn’t know how to handle a stick-up-her-ass bossy adult. She’d been raised by a woman who made Erce look like Mary Fucking Poppins.

  “So you think I’m just a human kid, do you?” Aphrodite got all into the vamp’s personal space, which made Erce take an automatic step back. “Think again. I’m a prophetess of Nyx. Remember her? Nyx—as in your Goddess who is the boss of you. I do not need to be some guy’s refrigerator to have the right to go before the High Council. Nyx herself gave me the right. Now move the hell out of my way!”

  “Though she could have phrased it more politely, the child makes a valid point, Erce. Let her pass. I’ll take responsibility for her presence if the Council disapproves.”

  Aphrodite felt the small hairs along her forearms lift as Neferet’s smooth voice came from behind her.

  “It is not customary,” Erce said, but her capitulation was already obvious.

  “Neither is it customary for the soul of a fledgling to be shattered,” said Neferet.

  “I must agree with you, Priestess.” Erce stepped aside and opened the thick stone door. “And you are now responsible for this human’s presence in the Chamber.”

  “Thank you, Erce. That is gracious of you. Oh, and I am having a few of the Council Warriors deliver something here. Be quite sure to allow them to pass, too, would you please?”